The high school football season is coming near to a close. For some, the play-offs will lie ahead and, for the few, championships are to be won. Then the season is over. For 95% of graduating senior football players, that last game will be the last one of their lives. Never again will they put on a helmet and take the field.
Most other sports can be played into middle adulthood and some even into the elder years. Those who were on high school tennis or golf teams can continue to play for decades. Baseball players can play in pick-up games or perhaps transfer their skill set to softball and play in competitive adult leagues. The same is true for basketball and volleyball players. Swim team participants can continue to enjoy swimming and runners on the track team can continue to run in organized races. But high school football is different. It has a shelf life.
The other 5% might go on to play in colleges large or small and the top elite, a very small percentage of college football players, will have a shot at the NFL or one of the minor professional leagues.
Not so, the 95%. Many of them carry gridiron injuries with them into their futures and, years down the road, will still nurse an old knee or neck injury. Some will bear scars on the hands that were stepped on by the cleat wearing opposition and others may carry facial scars if they played decades ago when the facemasks were inadequate.
A sizable portion will hang onto their letter jackets which will be kept in an attic or in the back of a closet. Football, after all, requires that one expends HIS energy, sweat, and, unlike most other sports, HIS blood. It’s not something one easily forgets.
If they have sons or grandsons who play the game, they will be in the high school stadiums riding a bench, cheering for their team, and remembering the sights, symbols, and music that are so much a part of the game. Sometimes they are transported back to the feel of the shoulder pads, the cheers of the crowd, the adrenaline rush that comes from a good hit or a victory won in overtime. They will never forget the smell of the freshly mown grass or the pungent odor of a well-used locker room.
Country music star Kenny Chesney was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. He graduated from Gibbs High School in 1986 where he played both football and baseball. In 2010, he released a song called, “The Boys of Fall,” which is, of course, about high school football. Chesney said, “Where I come from, there are a few things that really matter: God, family, friends, and sports — especially football. And not just college or professional football. High school football.” His song captures the sentiment perfectly. “The kings of the school,” he writes, “were the boys of fall.”
The song certainly describes how football was and how it was perceived in my high school. While there were many sports, the one that garnered the largest attendance by far was football.
A few years ago, I took my two oldest sons to Kingsport, Tennessee to watch my alma mater, the Dobyns-Bennett Indians, take on the archrival Science Hill High School Hilltoppers. It was the last regular season game, and both were undefeated. There were over 5,000 people who packed the stadium.
Sure enough, I was caught up in the moment. After 50 years, I still got a thrill when the 300+ member band played the school song after every touchdown, the cheerleaders urged us to yell, the anticipation and tension filled the air … well, for a brief moment, I was one of the boys of fall again.
David Hoover, a former D-BHS classmate of mine and a retired baseball coach and history teacher at the school, wrote a book about the boys of fall titled “100 Years of Glory: 1921-2021, Dobyns-Bennett Football,” I, of course, bought a copy immediately. As I read through the book, learning more about D-B football than I ever thought I would, I found my name mentioned in the 1968 season. My claim to fame was that I sustained a shoulder separation (twice). But a mention is a mention, so I’ll take it.
Unlike the 95%, I did put on a helmet again. The season after graduation, I played on a Boy’s Club team for older teens and, in 1970, played a flag football season (no helmet there) on the U. S. Amy Base at Fort Lee, VA. In 1972, I played in a very competitive tackle football league (helmet back on again) at Marine Corps Base Quantico where I was named to the East All Star Team. We defeated the West All Stars 31-30, and the helmet was taken off after that game for the last time.
I played five years counting junior high and high school, plus the three seasons after high school. For all but the first year I was an offensive center. There’s no glory at that position, no announcer calls your name, you never score any points, the girls don’t swoon over you, and you get pounded every single play that you are on the field. If I had it to do over, I’d do it again in a minute.
So, to every high school football player in schools large and small, to those who were winners and to those whose teams lost more games than they won, to those who were honored and to those who were never recognized, and especially to the 95% of seniors who have played your last game: Hold your head up high.
You accomplished something that most boys in your school didn’t even attempt. When you were in your uniform, you WERE your school. You fought the battles. You battled in the heat, and in the rain, and in the mud, and you shed your sweat and your blood. These moments will linger with you always. Embrace them. You were a football player. You were one of the boys of fall.
David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at www.ctk.life. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.